Word Count: 1654
Est. Read time: 8 mins.

You just know it; you feel it from the minute you enter the door. This place is all about service to the customer. To translate that feeling to the words they use, “We want to be the Most Caring company in the area”. That’s a pretty high bar they’ve set for themselves.

Chick-Fil-A sets its own bar though. Each location determines how it can best meet that level of service, quality and community involvement.

The “Mystery” of the HOW?

The near perfect level of customer service at most Chick-Fil-A locations has always been a mystery to me. How do they ensure the consistency of high service? Do they just get lucky in whom they hire? Sprinkle customer service magic dust on new employees? Pay them more than any competitor? Require their people “drink the CFA Kool-Aid”?

I mean, we all know how it is. At ANY place of service you hope you are served by a dedicated employee with a smile, courtesy, good eye contact, politeness and a clear voice. We mentally cross our fingers and hope we catch our server on a GOOD day.

Luckily, you don’t have to roll the dice and hope for good service at Chick-Fil-A…when the sun is shining (or not), the server is in a good mood. Quality service “regardless” seems to be the norm.

Many point-of-service restaurants and fast food establishments face the same issues: how to maintain consistent quality of food, loyal customers and good customer service with engaged employees that are typically filling lower wage positions and often dealing with terribly difficult customers.

Somehow, over time, I became convinced that Chick-Fil-A “checked all the boxes”. But HOW?

To learn more, I recently met with the Marketing Director of the CFA Lenoir location in the Unifour area. Miss CiGi Sparks, a graduate of Lenoir- Rhyne University with a Multimedia Journalism degree and a ton of personality and enthusiasm was my interview source. After early experience working in traditional news and publication positions, CiGi has (since mid-2018) “served” as Marketing Director, reporting to the Manager, Independent Operator Mike Sheley (Chick-Fil-A is still family owned by the Truett Cathy family, now headed by son, Dan Cathy).

About all this writer knew of Chick-Fil-A was what most know. Great tasting chicken and creative advertising, including poor spelling cows. You see the cows and you know what is close by…“Eat Mor Chikin” – a direct plea from the bovine community to not eat burgers; go for the chicken.

Simply interviewing CiGi was not only a delight, but much more informative to me than I ever expected. The impressive thing was how easily and personally she spoke of the “culture of service” at Chick-Fil-A – certainly the one in Lenoir where she works. It is easy to see how the customer-focused culture wraps itself around each Team Member – as well as many customers.

OK, so what was learned about the “magic” of the pervasive customer-love exhibited by CFA Team Members? No surprises. No magic dust. No hard “Be customer friendly or else” messaging. Selection, clarity of expectations, training and mentoring, osmosis of the culture, encouragement from other Team Members, and a “general soaking up” of the surrounding positivism and drive for excellence seem to be the ingredients. This “principle-centered” company just puts the right pieces together to help Team Members be as successful as they can be, while being as consistently excellent as they are expected to be.

Business Principles and Personal Values – A Good Blend

Chick-Fil-A (see the tidbits below to learn how CFA got its name) embodies both the business principles and the personal values espoused by the founder, Truett Cathy (1921-2014). Cathy once presented his business philosophy and model at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Visiting Writers Series.

Truett built his business model around his own highly regarded values and principles (see several of Truett’s easily read and available books, listed in this issue’s READ category). He also lived out those values, once answering this writer’s question, “What was the most difficult decision you ever had to make?” He quickly answered, “Deciding not to open on Sundays.” Opting to forgo a day of revenue in favor of giving employees a day of rest. This is still the practice today.

(At the end of this article on CFA’s legendary customer service, see bullet point snippets of the Chick-Fil-A philosophy and uniqueness.)

Second Mile Service

According to CiGi, new Team Members are carefully selected, interviewed by several at the location for “fit”, oriented, trained thoroughly and mentored on a one-to-one basis. Employees are awarded for excellence, will jointly celebrate each other’s birthdays, etc…. all the while encouraged to “lovingly drink the Kool Aid” of the culture’s “learn and grow here” and “Second Mile Service”.

Smiling and being a nice person is the definition, it seems, of any client-centered business. At Chick-Fil-A those behaviors are assumed, as well as expected of all Team Members. Customer skills are not a “role to play” nor a “be this way at work” mindset. Rather, Team Members are selected in part for their outward behaviors, and then those behaviors are reinforced. Those skills seem to be innate in Team Members, not “trained into” them.

But, Chick-Fil-A takes things a step further by encouraging Team Members to provide “Second Mile Service”. The current president, Dan Cathy, likened ‘Second Mile Service’ origins to a Bible verse (Matthew 5:41), “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles”. Behaviorally, that includes carrying trays of food to a table for the elderly, Moms with small children, etc. Helping people get settled and checking back with them. Thinking for the customer…e.g., customer forgets condiments or forks, and the Team Member takes them to the customer without having to be asked. Offering fresh ground pepper to in-restaurant diners, gratis. One franchise in Virginia started taking unsold/past-their-prime chicken nuggets to diners who are pet owners.

Again, elaborating on this highly prized level of service, Cathy says, “if you want to make a difference, step over the line and into that second mile, because magical things happen there. There’s joy and fun and reward in that second mile”.

The Lenoir restaurant I visited to interview CiGi had a vase of FRESH flowers on each and every table. I know that to be a Second Mile example at that one restaurant, by their choice and cost, not mandated by corporate policy. Local restaurant leaders and directors have the latitude to do their job not just well, but with excellence, as they think their culture defines it.

Not to my surprise, CiGi says that working in such a customer-focused, principled, and truly caring culture has affected her personally. She admits to being more aware of those she is there to serve. She views her role in life as “serving others”, regardless of the job.

When asked for quotes that symbolize her approach to living a life of service, CiGi offered these:

“I don’t want you to come to work just to work, I want you to come to work and create excellence every day.” – Horst Schulze, founder of Ritz Carlton

“The culture you allow is the culture that you create.” – from a Craig Grochel leadership podcast

“Be a problem solver, not a problem finder.” – A boss that she had several years ago.

Finally, The Bottom Line

Though this piece on “How Does Chick-Fil-A Do It” regarding maintaining their renowned level of customer service may seem a bit “sappy” to some. It is accurate. CFA does a remarkable job of selecting, hiring, orienting, training, coaching, modeling, reinforcing and encouraging Team Members.

There is no doubt Chick-Fil-A is a business in all senses of the word, but the evidence says it is a caring business; caring for its Team Members, the community it serves, the customers and each other.

And that strategy works for everyone…and is profitable.

The Evidence and More

(Look for elaboration on these four principles in this issue’s LEAD category, along with the unique mantra by which Chick-fil-A develops its leader/managers.)

A company run by principles and a fine-tuned culture seems to be working just fine, thank you!

Tony Jackson
Managing Director and Founder
GFB Connect, Inc.